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Was Canada once a land of savages? And is saying so tantamount to racism? Many people would answer no, and yes. That's why Dick Pound, the high-profile Olympics figure, is in a heap of trouble for describing the Canada of four centuries ago as " un pays de sauvages." He was talking to a reporter from La Presse about the Beijing Olympics and the issue of human rights. "We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization," he said.

Not surprisingly, native groups are up in arms. "Mr. Pound must apologize to first peoples and educate himself about the history of first peoples in this country," insisted Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Some want Mr. Pound to resign from Vancouver's Olympics organizing committee, and some want him to quit his post as chancellor of McGill University. He says he wasn't referring to today's native peoples, and he didn't mean to give offence. But critics aren't mollified. B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell calls his remarks "disgraceful."

"Stupid" is another word that comes to mind. The B.C. government and VANOC have been working furiously - and sparing no expense - to get aboriginal groups on side for the 2010 Winter Games. The last thing they want is for native protests to steal the spotlight. Comments about "savages," in whatever language, are not helpful.

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Mr. Pound's choice of words was inflammatory, to say the least. But what about the underlying thought? Is it fair to say that the Canada of 1600 was not as "civilized" as China?

Yes, says Frances Widdowson, who, along with Albert Howard, is the author of an impressive new book on aboriginal policy and culture. Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (to be published next month) knocks the stuffing out of the prevailing mythology that surrounds the history of first peoples. That mythology holds that aboriginal culture was equal or superior to European culture. At the time of contact, North America was occupied by a race of gentle pastoralists with their own science, their own medicine and their own oral history that was every bit as rich as Europe's.

The truth is different. North American native peoples had a neolithic culture based on subsistence living and small kinship groups. They had not developed broader laws or institutions, a written language, evidence-based science, mathematics or advanced technologies. The kinship groups in which they lived were very small, simply organized and not very productive. Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high. Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was "savagery."

"Never in history has the cultural gap between two peoples coming into contact with each other been wider," Ms. Widdowson says.

Today, however, it is simply not permissible to say that aboriginal culture was less evolved than European culture or Chinese culture - even though it's true. Ms. Widdowson argues that the most important explanation for aboriginal problems today is not Western colonialism but the vast gulf between a relatively simple neolithic kinship-based culture and a vastly complex late-industrial capitalist culture. "It doesn't mean that they are stupid or inferior," says Ms. Widdowson. "We all passed through the stage of neolithic culture."

The fact that North American cultures never evolved further can be explained, as American evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond showed, by geography, climate and a host of other material factors. But today, it's not acceptable to argue that some cultures are more highly developed than others, or that cultural development is a force for good. Instead, our policies are based on the belief that aboriginal culture is equal but separate, and that the answer to aboriginal social problems is to revive and preserve indigenous culture on a "separate but equal" parallel track.

This belief has produced a sizable industry of academics, consultants, lawyers, social workers and bureaucrats, to say nothing of lucrative sinecures for many aboriginals themselves. Ms. Widdowson once belonged to this industry, as a government policy analyst in the North. She soon became disillusioned and switched to an academic career, where she has been a lonely voice in a world where native spirituality and "traditional knowledge" are held to be just as valid as Western science.

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Today, "traditional knowledge," which generally resides among the elders, is sought after by governments, studied in universities around the world, and recognized in environmental assessment processes. But Ms. Widdowson says most of it is useless - a heap of vague beliefs and opinions that can't be verified or tested. Why have the muskoxen drifted west? Because, according to the elders, the animals were "following the people because they missed them and wanted their company."

We have romanticized indigenous culture so much that it is often described (especially in native studies courses) as morally superior. Historically, aboriginal people were more spiritual, more egalitarian, more peaceable, less greedy and more ecologically minded than the rest of us. (To which Ms. Widdowson responds, "It's hard to damage the environment with a stone axe.") People are reluctant to challenge these assumptions. And they're not inclined to challenge indigenous spiritual beliefs, no matter how absurd. For example, anyone who questions the widespread belief that aboriginals originated in North America (rather than Africa, like the rest of us) is bound to be accused of disrespect and cultural insensitivity.

Claims about aboriginal contributions to civilization are also vastly overstated. Did the Iroquois Confederacy really influence the Declaration of Independence? Sorry, no. Do native medicinal herbs play an important role in modern drugs? No. Yet, some leading intellectuals try to argue otherwise. The thesis of John Ralston Saul's new bestseller is that we are at root a Métis civilization, even though he has no evidence to prove it. What is a Métis civilization? That's not too clear, either. But it's a good thing.

Much of our romanticism, of course, is fuelled by guilt. We robbed and mistreated aboriginal people for a very long time, and most of us feel terrible about it. Yet, Ms. Widdowson believes this denial of reality is extremely damaging. It dooms hundreds of thousands of native Canadians and their descendants to lives that remain isolated from the modern world, without the skills and aptitudes they need to make their way in an increasingly complex society. The message they get is that they need not, and should not, change.

But a neolithic culture cannot possibly give them a future. And it's time for us to face that. "The existing policy direction is so harmful," she says. "Aboriginal people are people like everyone else. They deserve to interact with the modern world like everyone else."

Needless to say, Ms. Widdowson, who currently teaches at Calgary's Mount Royal College, has been accused of hating aboriginals, and much else. "It doesn't mean that you're a racist or a colonialist if you recognize that there's a culture gap," she says. "But to say that aboriginal people were just as sophisticated as the Europeans - that's just nonsense."

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